Plans for a £65 million rebuild of Studland’s much loved Knoll House Hotel in Dorset, creating 86 new jobs, have been refused by Dorset Council – despite overwhelming support for the idea from councillors.
Owners Kingfisher Hotels are now being expected to submit a third set of plans to bring the Edwardian landmark into the 21st century at great expense, possibly delaying an opportunity to renovate the ageing Knoll House to 2025 or beyond.
Knoll House – dating from Edwardian times – was first opened as a hotel in 1931
Councillors frustrated by delay
On Wednesday 10th January 2024, Dorset’s eastern area planning committee rejected revised plans for a high end luxury resort at Knoll House.
It would have had 30 hotel rooms, 18 apartments and 26 villas, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a spa centre, jacuzzi, fitness studio, steam room, sauna and restaurant.
Councillors said they were frustrated by yet another delay to the scheme for an upmarket jewel for Purbeck’s tourism portfolio which would have operated all year round and increased the number of staff from 66 to 152.
Knoll House, built in the early 1900s and first opened as a hotel in 1931, was bought by Kingfisher in 2017 who started plans to revamp it the following year.
When the scheme finally came before planners in February 2022, it was refused because of the size of the scheme, the urban design and the fear of a negative effect on the nearby heathland.
Nigel Chapman of Kingfisher Hotels shows off the revised resort plan at its launch in October 2022
Curved lines, green roofs and solar panels
Hopes were high that a more sympathetic set of plans would be passed. The new scheme incorporated curved lines, green roofs, solar panels for renewable power, fewer villas and apartments, hidden car parking, more tree planting and landscaping to blend in with the surroundings.
Although the east facing hotel facade remained, the rest of the site would have been redeveloped to create one of Dorset’s premier holiday resorts.
But after objections from Natural England, the Dorset AONB partnership and the Dorset Natural Environment Team, Dorset Council planners recommended refusal on grounds of detriment to the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Heritage Coast and protected heathlands.
Planners were also concerned about surface water drainage, the lack of a biodiversity plan and by no guarantee that protected trees would not be damaged by the development.
Councillors were told that the undoubted economic benefits to Purbeck were not enough to permit such a large development in such a sensitive area, despite it replacing an existing building.
Original redevelopment plans were rejected as ‘too urban’ in February 2022
“Everyone supports the principle”
There were also concerns by planners that the villas and apartments had been submitted as C3 residential buildings rather than C1 commercial hotel property and that in the future they may be sold off to private individuals.
Committee chair Toni Coombs, of Verwood, told the meeting:
“I think it is very clear that everyone supports the principle for the redevelopment of the Knoll House Hotel which would be an absolute boon for Dorset and something we would all like to see.
“But it would have to be the right application. It is nearly there but not quite, although it is very, very close. The application does need some extra work doing on it.”
The current lounge in the hotel is beginning to look dated
Hotel starting to deteriorate badly
Councillor Cherry Brooks of South East Purbeck which includes Studland, was allowed to speak but not vote at the meeting, said:
“The application was discussed in great depth in 2022 and the applicants listened carefully and came up with something at great expense which was a great improvement and massively innovative.
“It’s now six years since the application was first submitted. The cost has been significant, not only to the applicant but also to us in terms of resources.
“We have a responsibility to protect our natural environment, but we should also feel we can support the human element as well and achieve something that is in harmony and not in constant conflict with its surroundings.
“Planning guidance asks us to find solutions where environment and growth are in conflict and this is our opportunity. This application has been brought to decide whether the opportunities outweigh the harm and you are absolutely at liberty to pass it.
“The applicants do not have a bottomless pit of money and the existing hotel is starting to deteriorate badly. The Christmas before last, visitors had to be sent home at the last minute because the hot water system broke.
“Can you imagine how they felt? Would they come back to spend their Dorset pound? Probably not. Do we want to see an outdated complex of buildings as part of our offering for tourism, one of the first buildings we see when we enter Purbeck from the Studland ferry? I think not.”
The setting for the hotel is perfect – but the century old building badly needs updating
“Delivering a luxury facility to Dorset”
Ben Reed, representing Kingfisher Hotels at the meeting, said that after they learned of the planners’ objections, on Wednesday 3rd January 2024, it had offered to overcome all their reservations.
Measures included reclassifying all accommodation as C1 commercial hotel rooms, using shutters and screens to stop the hotel emitting light at night, and dropping plans to welcome dogs after concerns about ground nesting birds on the heathlands.
There would no longer be any staff accommodation on site, with hourly electric shuttle bus journeys planned from Poole to Studland via Swanage and Corfe Castle to transport guests and staff.
Ben Reed said:
“The applicant has bent over backwards to address all the issues raised in 2022, including a public consultation, to come up with a design that local residents are very pleased with, which will increase employment supporting the local economy.
“Landscaping and underground car parking, smaller scale buildings, a much more energy efficient building, producing clean electricity, reducing car journeys, improving air quality, yet still delivering a luxury facility to represent Dorset.”
The hotel pool would be replaced by linked indoor and outdoor pools with a heath spa
“We need to invest in this site”
Before the meeting, a spokesperson for Kingfisher Resorts Ltd said:
“As the stewards of this beautiful site, we wish only to improve and enhance the current provisions of the hotel to enable Knoll House Hotel to thrive.
“Without significant investment, the hotel will continue to deteriorate into disrepair, and we believe that Purbeck and Dorset overall deserve better.
“We need to invest in this site, not only to enable the hotel to be a financially viable business but to inject much needed investment into the wider community and local tourism sector.
“Since our last planning submission, we very much took on board concerns raised by members, Natural England, the National Trust and AoNB representatives.
“As a result, we created a completely redesigned and more efficient scheme with less accommodation, more landscaping, increased sustainable features and an overall lower impact to the environment.”
Kingfisher did not immediately comment following the planning refusal.
Kingfisher may have to drop dog friendly status to appease planners over heathland concerns
“We all want this development”
Councillor Robin Cook, of Stour and Allen Vale, told the meeting:
“I think the feeling in the room is that we all want this development, just not in the form that it’s presented here, although most of the objections can be overcome.
“The woodland nature walk has been designed to encourage people not to walk on the heathland, but more than a million people visit Studland in a season and there are no restrictions on them at all, as the heath is open land.
“There are going to be more restrictions on the hotel guests than there are on the people already visiting Studland.
“There are five reasons for refusal and pretty much all of them can be dealt with if the applicants come back with a revised application.”
Plans for Knoll House Hotel were rejected at a meeting of Dorset Council in Wimborne
“I am hugely frustrated”
Committee vice chair councillor Shane Bartlett, of Wimborne Minster, added:
“I am hugely frustrated because it does appear that a huge opportunity has been missed as officers and the applicant haven’t come to agreement on a lot of the issues surrounding the application.
“So much has changed at the eleventh hour and you do feel that some of the reasons for refusal could have been overcome with the officers and applicants working together.
“You are looking at a £65 million renovation, a £5 million wage economy during construction, 152 jobs to operate the hotel, £2.9 million in wages, a £2.3 million spend outside the hotel by visitors every year generating another 59 jobs – this is where the frustration lies.
“This would have been an ideal opportunity to develop this hotel for the benefit of Dorset. I am deeply despondent that we haven’t got a result.”